Top 10 Dishes & New Openings of March

Aster’s Frozen Chocolate
Takoba sushi at John Colins
Takoba sushi at John Colins

March has been another intense run of new openings, whether the hot new BDK Restaurant & Bar from a Top Chef alum and Chicago chef (more on Kevin Diedrich’s top notch cocktail program at BDK in my next issue), or unusual finds like the new hidden sushi bar, Takoba, upstairs at John Colins bar [click on restaurant names for my Zagat features on both.]

There have been surprises like the Middle Eastern goodness of Amoura in South San Francisco (my feature here) or my new Turkish take-out favorite, Kitchen Istanbul — check out Istanbul and two other affordable new go-tos in Mexican and vegan food here.

Here are my top 10 dishes for March, many from new openings and a few from established greats.

Trenton tomato pie at Jersey

1. Jersey’s Trenton Tomato Pie

For years I’ve been loyal to — and still am — Tony’s Pizza Napoletana’s remarkable Jersey Tomato Pie that transports me back to my Jersey teen years but is better than any version I had in NJ. While that is still my favorite, I’m delighted to say there’s another Jersey pizza player in town: the new Jersey, which just opened early March in SoMa.

Starters, like ‘Nduja prosciutto spread ($9) on crostini piled high with fluffy sheep’s milk ricotta crostini and salty-sweet with honey and sea salt, are pleasing (and quite filling). A Jersey chopped salad ($9/14) is certainly California-ized with more greens, light on the salami and provolone — when I lived in Jersey, a chopped salad would often be a massive bowl of sliced meat and cheese with a couple iceberg pieces thrown in (I have a soft spot for the authentic version).

But here it’s all about the Trenton tomato pie ($17), oozing with mozzarella, Parmesan and that blessed balance of perfectly sweet-savory tomato sauce. Pair with an elegant glass of 2013 Le Rosé di Settembre, Liuigi Giusti from the Marche, Italy ($12 glass/$48 bottle), or a dry, dreamy 2013 Ravines Wine Cellars Dry Riesling from NY’s Finger Lakes ($12/48) — also on the menu at AL’s Place.

Bar Tartine's beef tartare toast
Bar Tartine’s beef tartare toast

2. Bar Tartine’s Beef Tartare on Toast

I’ve been talking of the underrated nature of chef Nick Balla’s modern Hungarian with Japanese aesthetic cuisine since he came on board at Bar Tartine in 2011 (and earlier, in his Nombe days), so it’s gratifying to see him finally start to get more of the national attention he deserves alongside talented co-chef and girlfriend Cortney Burns who came along a bit later.

When I’m not losing it over paprika-heavy (bright orange) liptauer cheese dip ($7) or sprouted lentil croquettes ($17) on his recent menu, I fell in love with beef tartare on toast ($21), umami-laden with bottarga (salted, cured fish roe) and tonnato (a traditional Italian Piedmontese creamy sauce accented with tuna). The dish refreshes traditional beef tartare — on a slice of Tartine bread, of course — in all the right ways.

Perbacco’s cavatelli

3. Perbacco’s Cavatelli

Perbacco chef/owner Staffan Terje’s pastas are as stellar as ever. He’s one of our city’s great pasta masters who has regional Italian pasta techniques down but moves dishes into forward-thinking territory. His rabaton ($14/19) — herb and spinach ricotta gnocchi — is a green dream that almost dissolves in the mouth, currently accented by spring-laden notes of asparagus, Meyer lemon and mint.

But the hand-rolled semolina cavatelli ($14/19) steals the show, meaty with Liberty Farm duck ragu and tart-sweet with a rhubarb agrodolce (sweet and sour sauce). Save room for the textbook-perfect, jiggly, silken texture of lemon thyme panna cotta ($10) with pistachios, huckleberry compote and berry sorbetto.
El Capitan's coconut ceviche
El Capitan’s coconut ceviche

4. El Capitan’s Coconut Ceviche

Ceviches shine at brand new El Capitan in the former Radius, just opened a couple weeks ago (my full feature in Zagat here). Chef Furr’s creative vision offers a fresh take on traditional Peruvian or Mexican style ceviches. All his ceviches, poke and tiradito/crudo are worthwhile, but none more so than this dreamy coconut ceviche ($14) showcasing changing fresh fish, like walu during our recent visit. It’s lush and bright with cubes of fresh, young coconut, achiote oil, black radishes, fresno chilis, chives and coconut milk.

Aster’s potato nettle dumplings

5. Aster’s Potato Nettle Dumplings & Frozen Chocolate

Daniel Patterson Group‘s (DPG) long-awaited Aster just opened March 31st on the cozy corner of Guerrero and 22nd in the Mission headed up by Brett Cooper, whose cooking I’ve missed since his days as Outerlands chef. On opening night, it was all about fluffy, slightly crispy potato and nettle dumplings ($16). Earthy and gratifying, maitake mushrooms, cheese curds and charred scallions interact with the Spring perk of peas.

But pastry chef Sean Ehland (McCrady’s in Charleston) are equal showstoppers, like the camouflage look of frozen chocolate ($12 – pictured top), a bracing-cool square of dark chocolate marked by a cocoa nib crumble and dollops of mandarin orange sauce. It’s basil oil and fresh basil leaves that make the dish pop, both on the tongue and visually.

AL's Place trout
AL’s Place trout

6. AL’s Place’s Almondine Trout

Back again at AL’s Place, one of my top openings of the year thus far, Aaron London’s trout ($17) in a decadent crab butter sauce marked by green peaches and layer of crunchy almond (almondine) over the silky fish, was one of his best dishes yet. I hope this one stays on the menu for awhile.

Sous Beurre's
Sous Beurre’s cassoulet

7. Sous Beurre Kitchen’s Confit Duck Leg Cassoulet

An ideal new neighborhood restaurant, Sous Beurre Kitchen, hit the easternmost side of the Mission in February with modern French cooking in a welcoming environment from informed waitstaff (my full early look at Zagat here). Confit duck leg ($23) is done to perfection here in a heartwarming, classic cassoulet of slow-cooked white beans, mini-vadouvan-spiced sausage and upland cress. Pair with a balanced 2012 Domaine Cabirau Maury Sec Serge & Nicolas ($15/$50), a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan grapes with the right amount of rich fruit and berry balanced by acidity — enough to cut through the dreamy-rich cassoulet.

MKT's foie gras terrine
MKT’s foie gras torchon

8. MKT at The Four Seasons’ Foie Gras Torchon

MKT at the Four Seasons recently brought on talented chef Alexander La Motte. Both meals I’ve had since he started have taken the restaurant into creative new territory beyond the more straightforward steakhouse and upscale American tavern offerings when it opened. Here are a number of dishes on his just-launched menu in my Zagat feature. Chef La Motte’s foie gras torchon ($24) is a silky standout accented by marcona almonds, granola, tatsoi (a green Asian plant also called spinach mustard or rosette bok choy) and a bright gelee of Calvados (French apple brandy).

Hopscotch's smoked salmon & wild rice salad
Hopscotch’s smoked salmon & wild rice salad

9. Hopscotch’s Smoked Salmon & Wild Rice Salad

Uptown Oakland’s Hopscotch just launched lunch and alongside their popular burger, fried chicken and cocktails, I was surprised to find a generous smoked salmon and wild rice salad ($14) was my favorite dish on the initial lunch menu. Laced with chrysanthemum, apples and almonds, a mustard vinaigrette perks up the bowl, simultaneously filling and healthy.

1760's mushroom tempura
1760’s mushroom tempura

10. 1760’s Mushroom Tempura

On a recent return visit to 1760, the dish I least expected to be my favorite was: mushroom tempura ($11) so delicately fried and herb-laden, it recalled my recent journeys in Japan. Accents of celery root, dill and citrus zest in a zippy, light cream add complexity.